Executive Summary: Top down transformation does not work. Bottoms up transformation within the context of clearly defined objectives does work.
It seems that nearly every day a new buzzword enters the language of business. Woman are urged to “Lean In”. Management no longer responds, rather they “pivot”. Problems are not solved they are “curated”.
The latest word that I have been made aware of is “transformation”. The last three companies I coached in were undertaking some form of transformation. This is not a bad thing as many, if not most, companies would benefit from revitalization in the way they operate and manage. The problem is that the ability to truly “transform” an enterprise, in my experience, is close to zero. This is true for two reasons: the inability to gain consensus from the workforce as to the necessity to transform; the inability to sustain gains that are made during the transformation process. Staff changes, the pressing needs of business and or a myriad of other concerns, unless assiduously managed, all conspire to defeat the work done by the “transformation team”.
Transformation will fail every time if it is only led from the top. Think of a pebble tossed into a still pool of water. The expanding concentric circles rippling out from the impact lose definition as they expand outward. This is the same phenomena top down transformation initiatives experience. Ensuing bands of management and employees have less understanding and thus, less ownership of the need to transform, have less desire to transform and ultimately will not transform, thereby undermining the initiative from the start. Sir Isaac Newton said it best: “Everybody continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.” Modern day translation: A body in motion tends to stay in motion; a body at rest tends to stay at rest.” If Newton is correct, and who am I to argue with Sir Isaac, the requirement to transform requires energy to be applied to the body at rest, i.e., the workforce. Applying enough energy to compel even a small number of people to change is a difficult task. Compelling an employee population to change is nearly impossible. Moreover, unless energy is continuously applied even the small group that has been compelled to change is likely to revert to its prior state.
So, how do we fix this? Stop doing top down transformations and start doing bottoms up transformations. Here is how it can work:
Step 1 – Executive management “floats” the idea that change is an imperative for survival. Another BUZZWORD for this is “burning platform”. They become the “Tiger Team” to implement the necessary changes and own the implementation.
Step 2 – Executive management takes responsibility to educate the rest of management on the need for change and, importantly, how to make change happen. (Here consultants can play a role by teaching everyone how change happens.) Have all managers then work directly with the workforce in joint teams to come up with answers to the issues of concern raised in the description of the burning platform. Answers composed by the teams will have a much better chance for successful implementation since they were developed up by the people with the most knowledge of how things work … the employees. Moreover, the issue of sustainability will be solved at the same time because the people charged with implementing new procedures, developing new products, etc., are the ones who created them in the first instance.
This two-step process seems simple. Getting dozens if not hundreds of managers to work with individual contributors in a sustained way is the challenge. To make this happen executive management must put transformation ahead of all other matters (which they should if survival is truly the issue) and continuously reinforce the imperatives of the burning platform to both management and employees. The challenge is not getting the workforce to solve for the issues delineated by the burning platform. The challenge is helping executive management to stay focused for the extended period necessary to avoid the initiative from becoming the latest “soup of the day”.
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